A storm of protest blew up last week when Montauk residents got wind that the Ditch Witch, a food wagon run by Lili Adams at the Otis Road parking lot at Ditch Plain Beach since 1994, was not the winning bidder for a concession at that site, which is adjacent to the East Deck Motel.
In the face of a burgeoning and boisterous campaign conducted largely online through a “Save the Ditch Witch” Facebook page that drew over 1,000 followers by midday last Thursday, the East Hampton Town Board, which had resolved to institute a new system this year of awarding exclusive vendor rights for several town beaches in order to derail the potential for food truck wars, decided to suspend the program. After a review, they said that the process of soliciting proposals was legally flawed and scrapped all of the bids.
Plans had been laid through the social networking site for a rally at Ditch beach — with drumming — and suggestions made of not only boycotting new food trucks at Ditch, but forming a human chain to prevent anyone other than Ms. Adams from getting in to her traditional spot. The potential change in vendors at the beach was likened to the erosion of the character of Montauk and a takeover of the hamlet by outsiders.
The Beach Dog, a longtime vendor at the other parking lot at Ditch Plain Beach, was also set to lose its spot under the new town procedure, and it too became the subject of a lively and snowballing Facebook campaign.
Combined, the two food vendors received over 1,500 comments on Facebook, with positive posts from all over, including Hawaii, Nantucket, Boston, and New York City.
Emotions ran so high that someone, in a call to Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s residence on May 18, left a “harassing message,” according to a police report, expressing disapproval of allowing an out-of-town vendor, and not the Ditch Witch, to sell food at Ditch Plain. After Mr. Wilkinson reported the incident, the suspect was asked to refrain from contacting him at home, according to the report.
The board had been set to award the bids for concessions at several town beaches at a meeting last Thursday night, but was inundated with hundreds of e-mails calling the Ditch Witch an institution and questioning how a local business owner could be shut out.
After a hastily called special board meeting last Thursday afternoon, officials announced that, as this summer starts, it would drop the idea of assigning exclusive concession rights.
Facebook fans of the food vendors were jubilant. “It’s like the ’60s but now we have Facebook,” wrote Kate Sheerin on the Ditch Witch page. “Power to the People,” another wrote. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this . . . so proud to be a local Montaukian. It’s going to be a good summer,” wrote James Katsipis.
“It goes to show it’s not my community, it’s their community,” Ms. Adams said this week. “It’s their neighborhood,” she said of the popular beach site. “On Facebook, they didn’t talk about my product, they talked about the place,” she added.
The town board had long sought a way to control the situation at popular beaches, because of complaints from the public about too many trucks taking up parking spaces, the potential for turf wars among a sharply increasing number of vendors, and complaints from store owners about competition from the itinerant peddlers.
A scoring system for proposals from concessionaires was developed, with different amounts of points given to a variety of criteria, and four private citizens, who the town board has refused to name, were asked to score all the proposals.
Although, according to Constitutional law, non-local vendors could not be excluded, the intent, Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said last week, was to “customize this in such a way” as to give longtime local vendors an advantage. Therefore, items such as experience and an understanding of the community were weighted more heavily than other criteria, and, overall, the proposed rent to be paid would account for only 40 percent of the score.
According to the final scores, the rights to sell at Otis Road were to have gone to a newcomer, Turf Lobster Rolls, and the vendor for the main Ditch parking lot to the west would have been Montaco, which came on the scene last summer.
At the town board’s meeting last Thursday night, those vendors questioned why the original determinations were thrown out, and discussed the tribulations of trying to break into the food truck business here.
“Bullying is alive and well in Montauk,” said Mars Ostarello, who began operating the Montaco food truck there last year. “People loved us,” Ms. Ostarello said of her customers. But, she said, she was harassed by longtime vendors — “some people in this room, aggressively,” she said.
James Bogetti, whose family runs the Beach Dog, said comments about bullying were unfair to make “unless you have a police report.”
“You told me if I didn’t stop it, I’d have real big problems — in a very aggressive way,” Ms. Ostarello said to him.
“I’ve never bullied anybody in my life,” Mr. Bogetti replied.
Zachary Lynd, the 26-year-old behind Turf Lobster Rolls, said he had gotten on a bus to come to East Hampton from New York City as soon as he heard about the uproar over the bids. “I know I’ve never lived here,” he said, “but I saw an opportunity, and I saw you were offering an equal opportunity. I was willing to stake a lot — my entire life savings — for that opportunity.”
“I’ve invested a lot — time, and money, and energy — and I want to know what we’re going to do. This is a knee-jerk reaction to throw all of this out,” he said.
According to John Jilnicki, the town attorney, the information given to bidders did not include a breakdown of the points assigned to each subcategory, such as an “understanding of customer base and community,” while those who evaluated the bids used the more detailed scorecard. Regardless, when soliciting bids, the board retains the right to reject them.
“It’s . . . hard to believe this flaw was found after the level of outcry,” Mr. Lynd said.
Ms. Ostarello, the Montaco proprietor, described how she had diligently prepared her winning proposal. “We all ran the same race,” she said, “with the same conditions, fair or unfair. And at the end of the day, the ones that were most fit won.”
The fact that the board discovered a flaw in the process in the midst of a community outcry supporting Ditch Witch “is a little bit odd,” she said. “I mean, come on, guys.” She said not knowing the specific point value of each subcriteria was not a key factor for bidders.
“We did not meet our mandate under the law,” Mr. Jilnicki said. Councilwomen Julia Prince and Theresa Quigley said the decision to throw out all the bids was not based on all the objections about the Ditch Witch not having been chosen, but solely on the discovery that the process may not have been fair to the bidders.
“I felt bad for the person who lost that bid,” Ms. Prince said of the Ditch Witch. “But you know what, nobody is entitled to those spots. That’s town property. I didn’t read the 200 e-mails, or Facebook,” she said. “That wasn’t what was important to me.”
The board intends to fine-tune the exclusive concessionaire process with an eye toward later implementation, perhaps even during this summer season.
Kelly Bogetti, a member of the family that runs the Beach Dog, told the board that there “should be a huge consideration of the taxes and what we put into the community,” in favoring local vendors. However, Mr. Jilnicki said Tuesday that giving too much weight to the “local” factor would be illegal. “You have to have it structured so that you don’t preclude people from outside,” he said.
A provision of the peddling law limiting food truck vendors to a 30-minute stay in a particular spot will likely be suspended in the interim for certain beach locations, Mr. Jilnicki said.
The board is expected to discuss another provision now in the law, which allows vending only from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. The law also calls for vendors to park only in designated parking spots at beaches, on a first-come, first-served basis.